Thursday, October 15, 2009

Animal Signaling, Origami Liveliness

This is mainly a ‘natural history’ posting, not an origami posting, but you origami people should all read it all the same.

First off, have a look at Olivia Judson’s fine article in last week’s New York Times science section. It is about how animals have different calls to warn their group-mates about the approach of different kinds of predators.

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Neat, no?

I touched on this subject once before back when starting out on this Blog. This was when drawing attention to just how weird the Owls look, among all the avian species; in particular noticing that (a) all owls have haunting, rather 'unbirdlike' faces, (b) many owls have specifically mammalian-looking faces, and (c) some owls have even more specifically a face that looks like a cat's (facial feathers that resemble fur, pseudo-ears that resemble cat ears, a hook nose flattened against a flat triangular face, yellow eyes, etc.). By “cat” I mean of course not just the ferocious predator known as the domestic cat—but it too.

Suppose we grant the observation. Why would an owl want to look like a cat? What do the two even have in common? Casting about for an explanation, I speculated that this might be a form of mimicry directed at the prey. If the owl, sitting in the bole of a tree at night, can trick the rodent or small bird into thinking it was a different sort of predator—and cats are the main competitors for the same sorts of prey Owls go after—it will trigger the wrong escape-strategy in the prey animal, and thereby gain an advantage.

Now, this was almost the subject Olivia wrote about. Actually what she discusses is a more general and more fascinating phenomenon: the fact that that some prey animals have distinct calls for warning troupe-mates about the approach of different kinds of predator (e.g., one call for an eagle, another for a leopard). But the direct implication of her account is that there must be a different correct way of reacting to each of the different types of predator. Maybe the optimal escape-strategy is ‘freeze’ if it’s a cat, ‘get to the nearest tree’ if it’s a bird: I don’t know the details (few of which have seem to have been researched, so far as I can make out). But there has to be a difference—or the different calls would not have evolved.

And if that’s the case, it pays an owl to look like a cat.

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What does this have to do with origami? Very possibly nothing. Except that good origami animal design tends to involve a great amount of close observation of actual animals, and a lot of thought about animal categories. This bears repeating. The thought that goes into the design or execution of good origami isn’t just folding-thought, or even just or primarily geometric thought (as might be concluded from some of the ways origami is being pitched to the public nowadays) but science and sensibility much more broadly construed. I think it’s already true of this young art that in the history of sculpture in the world there has never been as wide or as detailed a study of the forms of so many different species, in any medium. This sculptural study is being carried out by some fairly intelligent people who insist on 'getting it right’ and who also care something about the animals themselves, along with their representation in paper.

Also it seems to me: origami still has the advantage of being a borderline art, even as it claws its way toward respectability. For a long time it was practiced and transmitted in the West by magicians, and in the East by members of the ‘floating world’. Something of this marginal existence and tolerance for—even courting of—unrespectability is part of its essence. Yes, we have to be intellectually disciplined, rigorous with the folds, or the thing won’t come out—but we still have a liberty of thought that you rarely find in academia nowadays. (Maybe encouraged by the material's manipulability: you can as easily fold the sheet this way as that, because in the end ‘its only just paper’.) Given that we have no reputations to lose, or maybe have lost them already, we can afford to make risky speculations, backed as said by a great deal of observation and reflective musings as the paper is fiddled with. If you suggested an idea like the one above at a university, the hoots you’d hear would not come from the owls.

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Olivia Judson’s article also contains a striking photograph of some Diana Monkeys, taken by Tim Ockenden for Agence France-Presse.

Now, each time I see one of these pictures, or see some well-made animal paperfolds, I come back to the strange question, why on earth it is that origami is so suited to the making of animals---I mean, where does it get the ‘life-like’ quality it is so famous for, and why is there more of it in folded paper than in works made from stone, wood, plaster, bronze or now plastic.

With these Diana monkeys in the photograph the question is slightly less acute, since there’s a beautiful color change and one that seems as if crying out to be reproduced in duo-colored paper by, say, Quentin Trollip. Birds, for instance, often pose a greater problem for origami than these monkeys, since a common color number in birds is three rather than two, and paper unfortunately has only two sides. (I will discuss the question of why animals have the number of colors they do, hopefully in another post.)

As to the general problem of what is specially ‘lifelike’ about this medium, I confess it’s still a mystery to me, even after years of thinking about it hard. But let me take another crack at it.

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To fix ideas, let’s use a concrete example. Hard as it is sometimes to tell things from photographs—here is an image of Roman Diaz’ Elephant .

Here, the folded form is 3D, and in that respect more lifelike than simpler forms. But still it is exactly missing at least two very prominent aspects of actual, living elephants: the thick, impenetrable mass of that body and its supporting columns; and also—let’s not forget it—that elephant smell, which is the smell of a zoo. And even so, or perhaps for that very reason, there is an incredible amount of ‘liveliness’, ‘presence’, and ‘potential motion’ to this folded form.

One idea that suggests itself to explain this liveliness is that of the ‘ricochet’. 'Life' or 'liveliness' is, in a sense, what you are left with after you subtract all physicality and substance from a corporeal being. But 3D origami from dry paper is also a 'subtraction' from a massy representation of all its mass: it’s another way of ‘bouncing back’ or ‘ricocheting’ from the expectation of substance. And maybe that's why it suggests its counterpart: life or liveliness.

This is a cute, probably too-sophisticated idea, but the first problem with it is that an origami animal is not just the skin or outer surface of an animal, done up in paper. It is not, for instance, a paper version of a cicada's nymphal shell. Part of origami is the folds, not just the material. If you were to somehow render just the outer surface in paper, you would not get the full lively effect that origami animals are able to achieve.

Or so I claim; but whether this claim is true or not it at least it has the virtue of being not theoretical. The closest anyone has come to to making 3D paper outlines of an animal’s surface is the paper-and-wire sculpture of Polly Verity, who is known in the origami world for her leadership of the field of curve-folding but not for animal origami design ‘proper’ so far as I know. Yet have a look at some of these (mythological) animal sculptures she has made.

They are elegant works, maybe the best of their type; they use paper on a wire frame and gain a gentleness from paper’s translucence and fragility; and some of them include origami elements (tessellations) along with the other manipulations of paper that involve cuts. So they draw on some of paper’s qualities and some of origami’s too. I would even say that as finished art products most ‘regular origami’ would have a hard time competing with them. Nevertheless they are not strictly paperfolds and it is my impression that they don’t get all the way to the liveliness that ordinary animal origami can reach, I would say more cheaply.

But look for yourself, and judge for yourself.

What all of this suggests, if true, is that the integrity of the paper, and the visible folds, are essential, necessary elements in generating the liveliness, along with the use of that material, paper.

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I want to risk introducing another ‘natural history’ idea into this mix. The basic idea is that origami is using the language of flowers to represent animals with, and flowers are a little different from animals in their signaling qualities.

From the origami side, the idea is that, in being made of a flat colorful surface which folds and unfolds its way into its final shape--that is, suggests the possibility of its form being made and unmade by folding, growing and changing in the now--- origami is using some of the visual language of flowers. And so if you are making an animal via origami, you are extracting and applying the distinctive attractiveness and fragility and disarming properties that a flower has and giving them to the animal, which has them only in part.

From the natural history side, it is worth asking what differences there are in the kinds of beauty (or attention-striking properties) a flower has, as compared to an animal, and why these differences exist.

Though the notion has only been around since Darwin, and has only been taken seriously in the past 30 years, and still is under-appreciated in my opinion---a good deal of animal form and coloration is driven by sexual selection, and some of it by other types of signal selection too (signaling to parents, signaling to offspring, social-status signaling etc.). But sexual selection itself is not monolithic: it has the two rather different functions of attracting females and threatening away male competitors.

In animals, these two functions are sometimes performed by the very same signals. In other words, although nature has evolved a fairly universal language for signaling threat (especially ‘aposematic coloration’ or warning colors), in animals, some of these very same signals, or modified elements of them, get used also for the opposite purpose of attracting a mate. In animals, then, there is a certain blurring in how the signals evolve as between ‘come-hither’ indicators and ‘stay away’ markings; these tend to take over parts of each other. If an animal has a striking feature, it may or may not be used to fascinate a female with, but chances are that this conspicuous feature is also a warning.

This is not true of flowers. A flower’s signal does not contain any element of threat. It is meant simply to attract visitors and disarm their wariness as it tricks them into serving it and shakes its pollen upon them. If a flower is not ready to attract, it does not broadcast its signal; if it wants one pollinator to come but not another, the most it does is broadcast on a perceptual channel unique to its preferred pollinator (e.g. ultraviolet colors for bees, red for birds), shift its flowering schedule, etc. What it does not do is broadcast signals that are also threats. I can think of virtually no counter-examples to this ( the "Bat Flower" might be one). --A flower's striking qualities are all attractions.

That means that flowers are a purer case than animals for studying the evolution of the language whose meaning is 'come-hither'. So if you want to see what evolution can do when it is driving forms purely to attract, flowers are where you should look.

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What are the consequences of this for origami?

(1) If you think that origami is borrowing flower-language for its representation of animals , then animals are getting an 'added value' by being done up in paperfolds. They are getting the disarming, inviting quality of flowers—which even the actual animals don’t have (or maybe it is masked by what’s threatening in them, and takes some extra empathies from us humans to notice them).

(2) If you use origami not for making animals but for making flowers, you might get a closer representation of your subject than you would, say, from using plastic or fabric. But even if you did, the added value would be less than it is with animals. For now you are competing with flowers on their own turf. I say this of course without my admiration dropping by one iota for those--like Olga de Pedro--whose sense for the colors, folding and arrangements of paper flowers is impeccable.

That's it for tonight.


October, 2009
Beersheva, Israel